A Power Breakfast at 540 Park
by gary walther
The guests are high and mighty, but the breakfast menu is simple and traditional
Every business day at 6:59 in the morning, for nearly the past two decades, Rae Bianco looks in a mental mirror and says to herself, “It’s showtime.” Standing at her hostess podium, she counts down to the stroke of seven, when trading opens at what is arguably New York’s most exclusive influence exchange, breakfast at 540 Park, the restaurant in the Loews Regency Hotel at Park Avenue and 61st Street. The only other hotels in the country that approach this room in the power-and-influence derivatives market are The Hay-Adams in Washington, DC, and The Peninsula Beverly Hills. This is the dining room where you hear snippets of conversation like, “When my great-grandfather was chairman of Standard Oil…”
Bianco, who announced her retirement in early May, knows which cabinet members emeritus (Joseph Califano), crowned heads of corporate capitalism (Gary Winnick, Kenneth Langone), media moguls (Jeff Zucker, Jimmy Finkelstein), grand dukes of New York real estate (Jerry Speyer, Jack Rudin), barons of international finance (Felix Rohatyn, former Congressman Harold Ford, now at Morgan Stanley), and marchionesses of culture (Jennifer Maguire Isham, one of the principal organizers of the Tribeca Film Festival), will turn the hallway corner on any given day and at what time. That’s thanks to “The Book,” the ledger-size diary of reservations—still handwritten—that Bianco uses each afternoon to plot a provisional seating chart for the following day. She makes her bedtime reading an updated e-photo of the next day’s reservation page, just in case.
From seven to eleven each morning, Bianco will muster Olympian levels of politeness and politesse, as she plays air-traffic controller, den mother, and Cirque du Soleil juggler to a Rose Bowl Parade of boldfaced names. She has given Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak tables with appropriate ego distance during a UN General Assembly meeting (a particularly harrowing time for her); asked Joseph Califano if she could buy him coffee in The Library, the spillover room for those who can’t get a ticket for 540, in order to turn his table; persuaded Nancy Pelosi’s security detail to cut down its dining room presence to two; and in 2008, somehow put the four Democratic presidential candidates at daggers-drawn length from each other. The room, says Kathryn S. Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, is “a political hunting ground.” There’s money here and politicians come to drill for it, which can be treacherous: John Edwards allegedly met Rielle Hunter in The Library, which the hotel is trying to spin as a Gen X, Y, and whatever-comes-after deal-making spot.
Which takes us back to 540 Park’s greatest achievement: It was here, in the 1970s, during the depths of New York City’s fiscal crisis, that Preston Robert “Bob” Tisch coined an enduring term, “the power breakfast,” to describe the meetings he convened with the city’s movers and shakers in 540 Park to figure out how to save New York. “I made a deal with Jack Bigel, who was the advisor to the union pension funds, for four or five billion, literally on the back of a napkin,” Felix Rohatyn told The New York Times in 2005, recalling one of those conclaves.
Before the crisis, “it was just a hotel dining room,” says Jonathan Tisch, the chairman of Loews Hotels, who describes the room as “a great place to be seen without being heard.” What’s astonishing today is that Bob Tisch never ordered the public relations department to brand the room as “New York’s power breakfast spot.” The phrase just stuck, the powers that were kept turning up (many infatuated with the Tisch brothers’ investment prowess), and then, in the 1970s, as the world accelerated and doing business at the ungodly hour of 7:30 became a consummate virtue, 540 Park became the Coliseum of capitalism.
You could even say that 540 Park greases the wheels of government. George Arzt, a longtime New York political insider and erstwhile press secretary to Mayor Koch, credits the power breakfast for ending the feud between Mario Cuomo and Hizzoner. According to reports, one morning Cuomo stopped at Arzt’s table, said it was time to bury the hatchet, stated the price (Koch’s endorsing Andrew Cuomo for New York attorney general), and hours later, it was over. “You can see people here you can’t get on the phone,” Arzt told The New York Times in 2005, which sounds quaint in this social media era but is probably still true.
Bianco measures social distance with the precision of a physicist bent on nailing the Higgs boson particle. Those she doesn’t know well are addressed as “Sir,” whereas an acquaintance is “Mr.” Al Sharpton is “Reverend” (but only when no one is in earshot), and Clinton administration consigliore Vernon Jordan, coming down the hallway at 10 am (almost closing time, but he has an apartment in the Loews Regency, so he can sleep late) gets a Navy hail: “Hi, Mr. Jordaaaaaaaaan!”
Alexandra Lebenthal once told LXTV that Ira Harris told her— this is the way things work here—“[it is] a very expensive breakfast, but it’s the cheapest office space on Park Avenue.” She’s right on both counts. Those pancakes to which Al Sharpton was addicted before he went on a diet cost $20. The local Berkshire Grain granola is $14, seasonal berries are $23, and regular coffee (Starbucks) is $8. You have to feel for executive chef Stephen Crocker. Could Dante have devised a more perfect torture? Here he has an audience of the most powerful, influential, moneyed people in the world, the people who could book (maybe even buy) elBulli before it closed, and… well, he looks at me as if to say, “It’s breakfast, not Top Chef.”
But let’s put the prices in perspective. The morning I was privy to the play, Gary Winnick and Dick Grasso, who sported a tan so deep and polished that it seemed like exquisite lacquer work, were dining at table 10, the plum spot among window seats. The table’s net worth at that moment was likely somewhere north of $200 million. Say their breakfast came to $76 with tip— what percent is that of $200 million? Let’s see, 76 times 100 divided by 200,000,000 is, right, 0.000038 percent. Not even close to a rounding error.
photography by evan sung